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Mehdi Hasan: What is Ramadan - and other questions answered

A brief guide to the Islamic season of Ramadan for the curious, the bored, the uninformed and the ignorant.

Some of you may have noticed that it is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. My stomach has. I can hear it groaning as I type this post. I won't be eating anything till 8.38pm.

I've been fasting since I was about 12 or 13, and every year I'm asked the same bunch of questions about Ramadan by well-meaning non-Muslim friends and colleagues. So I thought I'd use this blog post to answer some of these common queries.

Here we go:

What is Ramadan?

It's the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims all over the world spend 30 days observing the fast. Muslims believe it is a blessed month; it is the month in which we believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

So you don't eat for 30 days? Is that physically possible?

Sorry, what? There seems to be some confusion about the timing of the fast. The fast takes place from dawn to sunset each day, for 30 days, that is to say, during daylight hours only. We don't actually fast for 30 whole days in a row - that would be impossible, if not worthy of a permanent place in the Guinness Book of Records.

You can drink water, right?

Nope. No water, no juice, no milk, no liquids whatsoever. In fact, the list of "prohibited" items and activities in Ramadan is fairly comprehensive: no food, no drink, no smoking, no drugs, no sex, no bad language or bad behaviour whatsoever, from dawn to sunset each day. That's the challenge.

But doesn't that damage your health?

Hmm. I haven't noticed my fellow Muslims dropping like flies around me, as we fast together each year. Millions upon millions of Muslims, in fact, have been fasting for centuries without falling sick, toppling over or suffering from premature death. Fasting, contrary to popular opinion, doesn't damage your health. Vulnerable individuals – the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women – are exempt from the requirement to fast. And then there is the range of academic studies which show several health benefits arising from Ramadan-type fasting, "such as lower LDL cholesterol, loss of excessive fatty tissue or reduced anxiety in the fasting subjects".

So do you end up losing weight at the end of it?

I can't speak for others, but I always end up putting on weight because I eat so much every night, at iftar time, to compensate for not having eaten all day! From my own experience, few Muslims treat Ramadan as a period of dieting, or use the fast to lose weight.

Why is Ramadan in the summer this year? Didn't it used to be in winter?

Since 622AD, and the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has operated on a lunar calendar, with months beginning when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. As the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year and contains no leap days, etc, the date of Ramadan moves back through our calendar each year. (For example, a few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter; the days were shorter and the fasts were easier!)

What is the point of starving yourself for 30 days?

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time for Muslims. By fasting, we cut ourselves off from the distractions and temptations of our busy, hectic, materialistic lives and try to gain closeness to God. The Quran describes the main purpose of the fast as being to "attain taqwa", or "God-consciousness". We use the fast to try to purify and cleanse our souls, and to ask forgivness for our sins. We also learn self-restraint and we become much more aware of those less fortunate people around us for whom "fasting" is not a choice, for whom hunger is part of daily life. The fast is an act of worship and a spiritual act; it is also an act of social solidarity.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Keir Starmer's Brexit diary: Why doesn't David Davis want to answer my questions?

The shadow Brexit secretary on the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the Prime Minister's speech and tracking down his opposite in government. 

My Brexit diary starts with a week of frustration and anticipation. 

Following the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, I asked that David Davis come to Parliament on the first day back after recess to make a statement. My concern was not so much the fact of Ivan’s resignation, but the basis – his concern that the government still had not agreed negotiating terms and so the UKRep team in Brussels was under-prepared for the challenge ahead. Davis refused to account, and I was deprived of the opportunity to question him. 

However, concerns about the state of affairs described by Rogers did prompt the Prime Minister to promise a speech setting out more detail of her approach to Brexit. Good, we’ve had precious little so far! The speech is now scheduled for Tuesday. Whether she will deliver clarity and reassurance remains to be seen. 

The theme of the week was certainly the single market; the question being what the PM intends to give up on membership, as she hinted in her otherwise uninformative Sophy Ridge interview. If she does so in her speech on Tuesday, she needs to set out in detail what she sees the alternative being, that safeguards jobs and the economy. 

For my part, I’ve had the usual week of busy meetings in and out of Parliament, including an insightful roundtable with a large number of well-informed experts organised by my friend and neighbour Charles Grant, who directs the Centre for European Reform. I also travelled to Derby and Wakefield to speak to businesses, trade unions, and local representatives, as I have been doing across the country in the last 3 months. 

Meanwhile, no word yet on when the Supreme Court will give its judgement in the Article 50 case. What we do know is that when it happens things will begin to move very fast! 

More next week. 

Keir